During my recent vacation in the Sunshine State, I managed to run every day without incident. On the day prior to returning home, however, I started experiencing an ache in my right knee. Aches like this can usually be attributed to accumulated fatigue, but I believe the culprit is more sinister, more brutal, and more unforgiving. Concrete. Miles and miles of concrete in the form of sidewalks. I’m a proponent of sidewalks from a safety standpoint as they provide an elevated buffer from automobiles, but they are utterly brutish on the bones that are housed inside of the legs and the feet. To paraphrase the Guns N’ Roses classic, “Welcome to the (Concrete) Jungle.”
Back to Florida for a moment. I contemplated running on the shoreline day after day for the stunning ocean view, but quickly realized that repetitions from one end of the beach to the other would become boring quickly. Accordingly, I opted for the island sidewalks as they would provide ample opportunity to explore the local sights and sounds. But the concrete started taking a toll, and that pesky, age-old health question surfaced in my mind once more. Is running on hard surfaces bad for your knees? Yes. And no.
Dr. Daniel Ferris, in an article for Outside magazine, offers a more robust response. “While there’s good evidence that running on harder surfaces increases the impact force when your foot hits the ground, there’s not much evidence that it leads to injury any more than running on softer surfaces.” Translation? Run everywhere. Concrete. Sand. Asphalt. Grass. Dirt. And the track. Dr. Ferris again: “A variety of surfaces is better than sticking with one consistently.” I wonder if I didn’t change the surface enough in Florida. To put another way, five days of concrete is a menacing reality for someone who has intently pursued trail running more in the past three years. But, unsurprisingly, trails can be a jungle too.
This doesn’t stop runners. They simply heed the words of John Fogerty, lead singer and songwriter for Creedence Clearwater Revival, and “Run Through the Jungle” (1970). Trails are a jungle of rocks, tree roots, sticks, holes, water, and numerous other hazards that creep across the landscape. They present unique difficulties to runners, but they are simultaneously a safe haven, a marvelous refuge from the long and winding road. In the words of Sierra Club founder John Muir, “In every walk [or run] with nature, one receives far more than he seeks” (brackets mine). Trails are a unique, restoring place.
Sadly, trails are not as accessible as I would like them to be. They are close from home, yes, but require the use of an automobile. Maybe this is why I return to the concrete jungle day after day to test the mettle of my muscles. Incidentally, this willingness to test my strength and endurance on the roads brings to mind a 2009 song by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys: “Empire State of Mind.” I reference this song as there’s an oft repeated line in the chorus that succinctly dovetails into this oft-repeated tendency of mine to hit the roads time and again.
Concrete jungle where dreams are made of. Like Hollywood, California, New York City is a shimmering place that people journey to with high hopes and sparkling eyes. The towering landscape is spectacular and grand, but the prospect of “making it,” however that may be defined, is equally daunting. Hard work, rejection, fatigue, and even a few tears are all part of the strenuous pathway towards success. This sounds like running. Running is rooted in play, according to Dr. George Sheehan, but training for a race – real training – is play coupled with pain. To see what your running dreams are made of requires grit, sweat, consistency, resolve, and a few aches here and there.
“You know where you are? You’re in the jungle, baby. You’re gonna die.” This is the refrain that rumbles through the mind of both new and experienced runners alike from time to time. Be it frequency, duration, intensity, or a combination of the three, the inclination to crinkle up like a piece of paper on the sidewalk or the road is immensely inviting when the legs are aching in agony and can go no more. This is the moment to keep going though, to press forward. In the words of English writer Samuel Johnson, “Great works are performed not by strength but by perseverance.”
Perseverance is the character trait that leads us towards a clearing in the concrete jungle. If we will stay the course and push through the pain, accomplishments are undoubtedly doable. No distance is unattainable. Be it a 5K, 10K, half marathon, full marathon, or the completion of all these distances in a span of four days in Walt Disney World, 48.6 miles (the formidable Dopey Challenge) is doable. And why not? A dream is a wish your heart makes. Run it down.